"Let's Fight a War Game ... Everybody Dies": A Bridge Too Far & Operation

One of my favorite World War II movies is "A Bridge Too Far", focusing on the Allies' ambitious Operation Market Garden. This movie was based upon a bold Allied plan to cut off a large part of the retreating German forces in Belgium and Holland, and position the Allies to launch a push eastwards across the north German plain country before the end of 1944.

The operation, planned by British General Bernard Montgomery, unfolded in September of 1944, with three airborne divisions, the US 82nd and 101st, and British 1st (joined by the Polish Airborne Brigade) assigned to seize several critical bridge chokepoints along a highway corridor that extended halfway across Holland, northwards to the critical Rhine River crossing at Arnhem. The British 30 Corps would push northwards, connecting the "islands", and the US First Army would then push across Belgium to catch a large part of the German forces in the West in a pocket.

If the operation had worked, the war could have been shortened by months as Allied forces would have poured into Germany months before the Western Allies finally managed to cross the Rhine River, maybe even reaching Berlin ahead of the Red Army.

But that's not quite how it worked.

Overconfidence and errors in planning and intelligence led to Allies underestimating the strength, quality, and morale of German forces. Of the many errors, none were more tragic than the dropping of the British and Polish Airborne troops into the Arnhem area, where they faced two crack SS Panzer divisions and were massacred.

While most of the advance planned by Montgomery was completed, the effort to seize Arnhem failed as German resistance to the south of Arnhem put 30 Corps nearly a week behind schedule. This allowed the Panzer divisions to focus on eliminating the airborne forces before reinforcements could arrive. The result was a fifty-mile dead end that did little to effect the strategic situation, or to position the Western Allies to punch into Germany.

Based on a book by Cornelius Ryan, this movie was one of the last "ensemble" movies with large number of well-known actors. Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, and others were in this film. Ryan also wrote the book and then screenplay for "The Longest Day", an other WW II classic movie about the D-Day invasion.

Much of this film centers around the experience of the doomed British 1st Airborne. As opposed to many movies which depict the Allies as overly-competent heroes, and the Germans as bungling villans, the movie fairly showed both sides, complete with bungling by British planners, and Germans who fought back with skill and determination, as well as mercy towards the British who surrendered.

Check out this BBC report on the battle and this memorial website for more information.

The title quote is attributed to Polish Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski, the commander of the Polish Airborne Brigade, in a rather blunt assessment of the operation.

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